GILBERT ACADEMY HISTORY
When Gilbert Academy opened its doors in New Orleans as the elite school for young black students seeking college preparatory education, it had come a long way from its modest beginning as a colored orphanage.
In 1863 when the country was in the midst of the Civil War many children were left orphaned when their parents went away to fight. The tragedy was particularly hard for black children, because there were no orphanages established for them. The Colored Orphans Home was established to take care of these children.
Louise DeMortie, a free woman of color from Virginia, was sensitive to the plight of the children and relocated to Louisiana to help run the Colored Orphans Home. She became one of the primary forces behind securing adequate accommodations for the orphanage. Her efforts were successful when she secured a building to house the orphanage, a large mansion on Esplanade that had been abandoned during the war.
Racial tension and resentment forced them to have to move out of the former confederate mansion after the war, however. DeMortie began to raise money and with the help of the Methodist church, the orphanage was relocated to Baldwin, Louisiana in 1867.
The home started to accommodate the children’s educational needs and in 1875 opened a seminary on the same campus in Baldwin. The La Teche Seminary was the name given to the orphanage school and the neighboring higher educational facility.
The school complex continued to grow in spite of funding problems and had plans to continue operating until a hurricane in the late 1870s devastated the already financially strapped school and orphanage.
At that point the seminary was forced to close because of the financial difficulties. State support had been denied the school and during this economically depressed period, private support was scarce.
A bright spot came in the early 1880s however when a wealthy philanthropist from Connecticut, W.L. Gilbert, gave the school $5,000 to rebuild the campus. He later contributed another $5,000 for a building that was named Gilbert Hall and in his will donated another $40,000 to the school.
A few years later in 1884, after the campus reopened, it was renamed Gilbert Academy in honor of his support.
Gilbert Academy was incorporated into New Orleans University in 1919. New Orleans University, along with Straight College, were the two higher education institutions for blacks in Louisiana during this period.
After more than 60 years in Baldwin, Louisiana the school was relocated to New Orleans in 1935. Gilbert Academy occupied a site vacated by New Orleans University on St. Charles Avenue for the next decade.
Gilbert Academy had grown from being an orphanage for black children from the Civil War period to the premier private school for blacks in the city.
After World War II, Gilbert was sold in 1949. The school was closed and eventually torn down. The needs of the community had begun to shift as public high schools for blacks had become available such as McDonogh 35 and later Booker T. Washington.
Elise Cain, a 1945 Gilbert alumnae and author of a history of the school, remembers her time there well and the most important thing with which she came away from the school. “I got a very, very good education,” Cain said. “We had some of the best instructors and got a well-rounded education.”
Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans
MARY FITZPATRICK PRESERVATION IN PRINT APRIL 2004 29
Peck Hall, located at 5323 Pitt Street on the back of the campus, was constructed in 1911 by the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church to accommodate African American female students at New Orleans University. When Gilbert Academy, the first standard four-year high school for African Americans accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, took over the campus, Peck Hall became the school’s dorm. Demolition application withdrawn, 2004 chartered and controlled New Orleans University) sold for $10 and other considerations their lots in Square 397 to the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church to erect a dormitory. In April 1911, the women’s society acquired the corner lot on Leontine Street for $1,100 and built a yellow brick three- story and basement building with stone sills, a broad roof overhang and exposed rafters to accommodate thirty girls as boarding students at New Orleans University. The women’s society, which operated the facility, named the dormitory Peck Hall, as it replaced Peck Memorial Home. It still stands on the original site at 5323 Pitt Street. The archdiocese that now controls the property recently withdrew its request to demolish the dormitory to make room for green space.
1863: ORIGINS OF GILBERT ACADEMY, SECOND SCHOOL ON ST. CHARLES AVENUE SITE Jump back to 1863 for a moment and the founding of another African-American institution, whose legacy will eventually intertwine with New Orleans University. Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Freedmen’s Bureau established a Colored Orphan’s Home for the children of Union soldiers who had died in the Civil War. In 1867 the home was moved to a plantation on Bayou Teche in Baldwin, Louisiana, where eight years later a college preparatory school for African Americans, La Teche Seminary, was opened on the same site. The school changed its name to Gilbert Academy and Industrial College in the 1880s after Connecticut farmer and businessman William Levi Gilbert donated $50,000 plus an endowment of $40,000 to the seminary. In 1919 New Orleans University and Gilbert Academy were combined administratively, although the academy remained in Baldwin, Louisiana. Then in 1935 New Orleans University joined with Straight College to form Dillard University and moved to the new Dillard campus on Gentilly Boulevard. At that point, Gilbert Academy left Baldwin and took over the campus space on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans vacated by New Orleans/ Dillard University.
The first standard four-year high school for African Americans accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, Gilbert required students to accomplish sixteen units (the State of Louisiana required only twelve and one- half units) in English, mathematics, social science, science, foreign language . The demolition of the Samuel Gould mansion, later the New Orleans University president’s residence “demonstrates more than ever the need of a strongly organized, vigilant, active body to preserve the irreplaceable heritage from our past. The French Quarter is not the only part of our city which should be protected from destruction.” Harnett Kane and Mrs. S. Walter Stern, Sr. Times Picayune, March 19, 1950 years), and elective courses. Students were encouraged to work for four more elective units. Tuition was $30 per year, and room and board in Peck Hall was $15 per month with a laundry fee of $2 a semester and a requirement of one hour a day of “duty work.” Teachers could apply for residency in the hall if space allowed. Among the graduates of Gilbert Academy were politician Andrew Young, writer Thomas Dent, pianist Ellis Marsalis, Olympic medalist Mickey Patterson, architect John Louis Wilson, and novelist Margaret Walker.
1949: ARCHDIOCESE BUYS GILBERT ACADEMY LAND AND BUILDINGS Perhaps it was financial trouble or possibly the increased awareness of integration after WWII but on October 26, 1943, the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church transferred to the Woman’s Division of Christian Service of the Board of Missions and Church Extension of the Methodist Church, the lots in Square 397, along with Peck Hall. On March 28, 1949, this group transferred the property to the Board of Education for Negroes of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The next day Edward D. Rapier, apparently acting for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, bought all the property housing Gilbert Academy for $312,000. The sale of Gilbert Academy’s facility meant the discontinuation of the high school unless $250,000 could be raised for a new building on a new site. The Methodist Church agreed to supply the site if the building funds could be obtained. However, even if the church board had agreed to use the $312,000 from the sale as an endowment for the school, there would still be a need for more money to run the institution. Officials publicly deplored the loss of Gilbert as “facilities for Negro education in the South and New Orleans are still inadequate, although improvements have been made,” according to reports in the Times Picayune.
On April 26, 1949, Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel announced the transfer, under the Youth Progress Program, of the Gilbert Academy property to the archdiocese. The site would be used for a new Catholic high school for boys (De La Salle) under the direction of the Christian Brothers, the first Brothers’ school in New Orleans. Possession would not take place until the end of the school year, at which time an inspection would occur to decide whether the buildings could be remodeled.
1949 & 1950: ARCHDIOCESE DEMOLISHES EXISTING SCHOOL BUILDINGS Within months, the monumental Gothic Revival school building on St. Charles Avenue was demolished. For a while, at least, there was a clear view from the Avenue to the still-lovely Gould mansion (and former residence of the New Orleans University president) on the back of the property. Under pressure from neighbors and the nascent preservation movement in December 1949, the archdiocese agreed to offer the Gould mansion free to any nonprofit public entity that would move it and keep it in public use. Writer Harnett Kane, a charter member of the Louisiana Landmarks Foundation, appealed to the citizenry of New Orleans to take advantage of the offer and prevent the destruction of the magnificent mansion, with its “pillared galleries that cover most of three sides, the raised brick basement, sweeping roof and dormer windows.” By the middle of March 1950, however, the struggle to save the Gould mansion was lost, a particularly disturbing event given that there were private interests willing to buy the house and move it but no public or even quasi-public ones, as the archdiocese required. Approximately $60,000 could have been raised by supporters for the move had a buyer and site been provided. Kane and his co-chair, Mrs. S. Walter Stern, Sr., spoke prophetically to the Times Picayune in 1950. “This experience,” they concluded, “demonstrates more than ever the need of a strongly organized, vigilant, active body to preserve the irreplaceable heritage from our past. The French Quarter is not the only part of our city which should be protected from destruction.” Thank you to Eleanor Burke of the Historic District Landmarks Commission for her insights and research on these important buildings.